TCS Daily


One Coin, Two Sides

By Greg Buete - January 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Deep in South America two terror fronts are colliding. While fundamentally dangerous apart together they are capable of producing terror attacks against the West in both greater magnitude and frequency than ever before. The region is called the Triple Border. It is a lawless region between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil that supports a community of 30,000 Muslims, many of them radical expatriates of the Lebanese civil war and aligned with Hezbollah. As Jeffery Goldberg of the New Yorker discovered, Hezbollah, an Iranian backed Lebanese terrorist group responsible for over 300 American deaths, runs an active network in the region complete with profitable fronts and militant training camps. Authorities in the region told Goldberg that Hezbollah made $12 million in the year 2000 alone.

Sebastian Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm", also recently visited the Tri-Border and detailed his journey in Vanity Fair. The Triple Border, Junger explains, finds that many other militant groups, such as the Irish Republican Army, Basque Separatists (ETA), Colombian terror group FARC, and even a few disgruntled Americans, come to the region to raise cash and plan terrorism. From his observations Junger feels we're entering a new era where militant groups and terrorist organizations, many once adversaries or who otherwise share no common goals, work together to help one another succeed. While free-for-all militant training centers are a disturbing thought, the most disturbing is Junger's report of joint al Qaeda/Hezbollah terror camps in the region. More than just cooperation, it could signal a merger. At initial glance if there were ever two terror groups we didn't want merging it would be them.

Before the 1990s intelligence experts were quick to dismiss alliances between terror groups with conflicting goals or ideologies. Even now skeptics say that Hezbollah and al Qaeda would be unlikely to unite due to the sometimes violently religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Even so, the pattern throughout the 1990s has proven contrary. For example, 14 members of a Saudi faction of Hezbollah were found to be responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. But while Hezbollah is Shiite, Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Even so, it came to pass that 13 Sunni Saudis helped Shiite Hezbollah - backed by a radical Shiite state (Iran) - execute a terror attack on Sunni Muslim soil under a common goal of killing Americans.

But Khobar isn't the only link between al Qaeda and Hezbollah. There are many more.

Testimony provided by Ali Mohammed, a former Egyptian intelligence agent turned U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant, linked Osama bin Laden directly to Hezbollah via the 1998 African embassy bombings trial. According to Ali Mohammed, who after his U.S. Army service became a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, bin Laden wished to model the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania after the 80s-era bombings against the U.S. embassy and barracks in Beirut. Bin Laden hoped that U.S. public opinion would sway in favor of a Gulf pullout as was done in Lebanon twenty years before. Mohammed also testified that he provided security in the early 1990s for a meeting in Sudan between Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyah, the mysterious military operations leader of Hezbollah's Special Security. It was at this meeting that bin Laden and Mugniyah formed a formal relationship whereby al Qaeda provided the foot soldiers and money for terror operations while Hezbollah provided explosives and training for the budding bin Laden organization.

It was only after Ali Muhammed's testimony that the intelligence community finally began to take notice of the maturing relationship. During an interview for PBS Frontline former CIA agent Larry Johnson said a view that Sunnis and Shiites would not cooperate was previously the predominant one.

Johnson: "But when you see someone like Mughniyah meeting with bin Laden, and Mughniyah moves freely back and forth between the Bekaa Valley and Iran - and the Bekaa Valley is where the explosives come out that end up destroying the U.S. housing complex in Saudi Arabia - and that the individuals who are involved in that bombing attempt in Saudi Arabia again show up having links and ties with bin Laden, all of a sudden, you need to step back and say, 'okay, maybe this is not quite as we pictured it.'"

Johnson, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's counterterrorism office, says that Osama bin Laden "modeled himself" after Imad Mugniyah. Under the backing of Iranian intelligence Mugniyah moves at will between Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and Iran. Both are significant points because Bekaa Valley is the origin of explosives used in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Osama bin Laden came from Afghanistan in the late 1980s as a guerilla fighter, not a terrorist. It was Mugniyah, among others such as right-hand man and former Egyptian Islamic Jihad head Ayman al-Zawahiri, who made Osama a terrorist.

Another significant point: Wherever Hezbollah is present Iran is not far behind. Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, in his book "Breakdown", says that Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Kie Fallis reported that Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both American Airlines Flight 77 hijackers, met with a Malaysian army captain named Yazi Sufaat, himself linked to the USS Cole bombing, for what is now believed to be a September 11 planning session. What alarmed Fallis was that Malaysian operatives reported that the hijackers spent the night at the Iranian embassy. Sufaat would shortly thereafter meet with Zacarias Moussaoui.

Since September 11 the ties between the two terror groups, and by proxy Iran, have become less covert. Perhaps both parties no longer feel the need to hide them, even if Hezbollah and Iran officially deny the linkage. As reported over the summer Hezbollah and al Qaeda coordinate tactics, training and finances, share weapons and explosives, and jointly forge identity documents. France's Journal du Dimanche even reported that Hezbollah hid September 11 mastermind Khalid Mohammed for a time over the summer.

Following the death of bin Laden's number three, Mohammed Atef, in Afghanistan al Qaeda began to promote several new leaders, which U.S. and European intelligence sources identified by name and leaked to the press. One of these new leaders is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian trained by Hezbollah but who fought among al Qaeda trained fighters against U.S. forces in Somalia, and assisted planning the 1998 African embassy bombings and 2000 USS Cole bombing. He is considered a formal link for military cooperation between al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and is a member of al Qaeda's military committee, the Shura. Intelligence sources even think Adel hid in Iran for a time before returning to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Another Egyptian Hezbollah-trained al Qaeda fighter, Saif al Islam el Masry, was - until his capture in October by Georgian Special Forces - a member of the Shura. Like Adel, Saif al Islam el Masry also fought against U.S. forces in Somalia. Federal authorities in Illinois recently linked him as an officer for the Chechen branch of the Benevolence International Foundation, a charity long associated with al Qaeda. (It took some digging but al-Adel and al-Islam el Masry are not the same person.)

Finally, according to Junger's source, Ramsi Binalshibh this year met with Imad Mugniyah in the Tri-Border. Binalshibh, having been charged with logistics in September 11, was a relatively high figure in al Qaeda before his September capture in Pakistan. If he met with Mughiyah it could be a signal for a very large attack jointly concerted between the two groups against U.S. citizens.

Besides the Triple Border, there are other areas where al Qaeda and Hezbollah cells appear active including in the most unlikely place - Canada. Officials from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) say that Mohamed Harkat, a reported close associate of Abu Zubaydah, is part of an al Qaeda sleeper cell and came to Canada to assist other extremists. A U.S. attorney investigating a Hezbollah smuggling operation in North Carolina believes a CSIS-intercepted transmission from a Canadian Hezbollah agent indicates that Imad Mugniyah is also operating a cell in Canada. There is no evidence they are working together, but given their history it should be investigated.

As a Lebanese-based terror group, Hezbollah's traditional target has been Israel. After the Kenyan attacks targeting Israelis, al Qaeda let it be known they too now consider Israel a primary target. And in August the Lebanon Daily Star reported a high-level meeting in Tehran designed to organize a coalition between several terrorist groups in order to thwart any attempts to cease suicide bombings in Israel. Present at the meeting - besides such infamous terrorists like Ramadan Shallah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - were Imad Mugniyah and an unnamed member of al Qaeda. Furthermore, officials from the Iranian government were also in attendance. Spawned from this meeting was a $50 million program, to be run by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, to train an elite unit of Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters on rockets and underwater suicide bombings.

But, one must wonder if Israel is the only designated target of all this training. In late November Hezbollah's religious head, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, made two separate speeches in which he threatened to take Hezbollah's war to the West. Nasrallah's first threat involved an escalation only if Israel occupied the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. However, his second threat was far more unsettling by claiming, "Martyrdom operations - suicide bombings - should be exported outside Palestine. I encourage Palestinians to take suicide bombings worldwide. Don't be shy about it."

Nasrallah has never been known for being shy. State sponsors, however, must abide by a different set of rules if they want to stay in power. Iran, in particular, double deals with the West, and blatantly so since September 11. Sure, every once in a while Iran will throw the war on terror a bone by deporting some al Qaeda suspects to Saudi Arabia, itself hardly a reassuring gesture, but the above reports paint Iran in an entirely different light. Iran likes to cite their bad relations with the Taliban, which killed several Iranian diplomats in 1998, as proof that they have no relations with al Qaeda. But the Taliban, having outlived its usefulness, is for all intents and purposes no more while it was always Osama bin Laden that kept the peace and acted as mediator between Tehran and Kabul.

The few times Iran has had opportunity to perform with honor they have acted shamefully. Recently Iran deported one of Osama bin Laden's 23 sons to Pakistan, not to any pro-Musharraf faction willing to extradite him to the U.S. but instead dropping him off at the border. Iran defends itself saying they did not realize during detainment the young man's identity, which still hasn't been revealed. If our allies cooperated in the war on terror like Iran does they'd be called Saudi Arabia.

Despite Iran's attempts at shyness satellite imagery taken by U.S. intelligence revealed a suspected al Qaeda training base along the Iranian border, complete with obstacle course and a rifle range. U.S. officials stated that Iranian intelligence knows of the camp even if the "reformist" government claims ignorance. We should be just as worried about this camp as we are Saddam's terror camp at Salman Pak. While only circumstantial, it is also relevant to note that 10% of bin Laden's Compact-M portable satellite telephone calls in the late 1990s were placed to Iran. Most were to Britain, by the way, but Britain doesn't fund Hezbollah and release a son of bin Laden.

Iran also shields itself from criticism that Hezbollah is a terrorist group, which some in the West shamefully allow to pass without challenge. Like many other Islamic paramilitary groups Hezbollah operates a humanitarian branch, which helps feed and shelter Palestinians. The social faction contains professional doctors and lawyers that help provide Iran, among others, the cover needed to avoid scrutiny from the international community. Active public relations help to portray Hezbollah as an effect of Israeli aggression, even though Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and even though Hezbollah says they, not Israel or the UN, no longer accept the "blue line" established by UN resolution 425. Now Hezbollah, pushing further south, says they want "disputed" Shebba Farms - Tel Aviv may as well be next.

Until recently Europe and Canada refused to acknowledge Hezbollah as terrorists. They ignored a basic rule of economics - money is fungible. For every dollar sent to Hezbollah's humanitarian side a dollar is freed for Hezbollah's bombs. It took some arm-twisting but the U.S. finally managed this year to get its Western allies to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Canada just did so only days ago. That's a good start, but now diplomatic pressure needs to be applied to Iran.

It's time to call their hand. Al Qaeda's close association with Hezbollah deeply implicates Iran (and Syria), which provides Hezbollah with a $100 million annual budget. With such fiscal control Iran must exercise great influence over Hezbollah operations. For two decades the world has allowed Iran's backing of Hezbollah to go unquestioned. Because of social and political equations between Israel and its neighbors Iran has successfully painted Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement. But Hezbollah's genetic makeup changes and loses all defenses when spliced with al Qaeda. The credibility of any remaining defenders or apologists is likewise destroyed. As formidable as they are alone a Hezbollah coalition with al Qaeda actually simplifies the war on terror and creates an opportunity for the U.S. to target both at once. Most of all, it forces Syria, Lebanon and especially Iran into a corner where they will be forced to respond to U.S. criticism in the eyes of the international community. There is a case to be made and ample evidence. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah both seem to be cooperating and waging war against America regardless of the consequences. It is time to inform Iran and company that there are indeed consequences.
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